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A Letter From China

The Wonders of China - Part Four

Compass

By Cynthia Muak

Wonders 4 - Compass

March 1990:
Mr. H (a Swiss) our company director responsible for Sales and Marketing Far East, Q my Sales Manager, and myself had been in Guangzhou for three-days to study factory operations of two toothpaste factories. On the 4th morning, were to make a sales presentation to them of our tube-making machinery, suitable for their needs and within their budget, (the Beijing government, in 1989 through a newly signed M.O.U. with the Romanian government promising aid, had commissioned these two factories to supply toothpaste to Romania as part of the aid package).

The next day we were supposed to be at Liuzhou to make a similar presentation. We timed our day beautifully. We had checked out of our hotel first thing that morning, and after we wrapped up the sales meeting at noon, we would go directly to the airport. This would give us plenty of time to get air tickets for the Guangzhou-Liuzhou flight, scheduled to leave at around 4pm. After arrival in Liuzhou, we would have an early dinner, after which we could spend the rest of the evening mapping out the best possible sales strategy to adopt for this factory. We didn't foresee much problem. After all we had invited the Factory Director to our office in Hong Kong on two previous occasions, to discuss what they would need to upgrade their facilities, and how we could help them with our latest state-of-the-art technology. We had very good understanding there.

When we arrived at the airport a little after one, the airline counter wasn't open,t so we sat down for a quick lunch. A long, rowdy queue was already forming. We weren't too worried at that point about tickets because we could see we were the only travellers to pay in FEC (plus a slight premium in order to be guaranteed tickets. This was something understood when flying out of domestic airports).

We saw some airline staff lounging around the place so Q went up to the counter to enquire about tickets, but was told the plane was slightly delayed. Some tea money changed hands under the counter when Q reminded the airline employee we needed to get on that plane. We had a very important meeting in Liuzhou at nine the next morning. We were assured we would have tickets.

Mr. H was getting worried and upset. Worried, because it was already 5 pm, and still no word about the plane; upset because 3 or 4 of the local Chinese waiting in line at the counter were carrying their live chickens in coops. He muttered that this would be the first time he would be flying with chickens, if they were allowed on.

After a brief discussion, we agreed it would make more sense to fly to Guilin, then take a taxi to Liuzhou. We asked for seats on the Guilin flight leaving at 9.30 but were told it was already fully booked.

We were tired and hungry. It was 9 pm but I dared not eat wondering about the quality of the food, and whether I would get a tummy upset if I ate any of it. I thought it would be safer to wait until we got to the Liuzhou hotel to eat.

Uh-oh! 10.30 pm and the counter finally opened. A big sign was displayed: FLIGHT CANCELLED. What cheek! The same employee gave Q an apologetic smile (translation: I am not returning your money to you), and advised us to get out of the airport as quickly as possible, otherwise we would also lose the taxis waiting outside for passengers.

As soon as we appeared, about 30 drivers mobbed us, all shouting around us; it was almost 11 pm, the lighting was very dim. We could hardly make out any of the cars properly to try to choose one in good or clean condition. All we heard was 450, 500, 600. Finally I heard 700. I pointed to the man and asked to see his car. It looked recently washed, in good, sturdy condition and quite roomy. Before I could open the front passenger seat door for Mr. H, the driver stopped me and said all three of us should sit at the back. We argued a bit about this. It was going to be a very long drive and Mr. H was a very big man. How was he going to stretch his legs? Know how the driver retorted? Because it was a very long drive, he wanted to stop by his home to pick up his wife. He needed a second driver. We were miffed but what to do. The other drivers looked shifty and their vehicles didn't look any better than the owners.

The wife was all dressed up neatly when we pulled up at her door. She was very nice too. She gave each of us a 'pau' (bun) in case we were hungry. We were but we did not eat. We had heard stories of travellers being drugged by food and drinks from strangers. Soon we were on our way.

Fifteen minutes into our journey, we still couldn't see any street lights or notice any roads as it was so dark. But we must be driving on asphalt surface because the drive was smooth. We asked the driver how he could tell where he was going. "In built compass" he answered, pointing to his head.

We were not amused and again wanted to know whether he was taking the shortest, safest and quickest route to Liuzhou. "Trust me Madam. We Chinese invented the compass thousands of years ago. After all this time how can our genes go wrong with road directions. Ask me to take you anywhere: east, south, west and north. No problem. Using only the compass in my head we won't lose our way."

I was in no mood to parry further with him and reminded him to get us to our destination as quickly as possible. It was very quiet and dark around us, the only light coming from the controls on the dashboard, and from the not-very-bright headlights out front, which the driver must have found adequate because he was driving along. So leaning back against the seat, trying to resurrect old images of Chinese style compasses soon sent me dozing off.

In case any reader of this missive is not aware, the compass, an instrument indicating direction, was invented in China during the Han Dynasty between 2nd Century BC and 1st Century AD.

During the period 221 - 206 BC, Chinese scholars and fortunetellers used lodestones (magnetic ore) to construct their fortune telling boards. They eventually realised that the lodestones always pointed towards the North because the compass' permanent magnetic force aligned itself with the Earth's magnetic field because of the lodestones. Thus, the spoon-shaped compass known as the geomancy compass came into being.

This spoon-shaped instrument was placed on a cast bronze plate called "heaven plate" where a circle was marked out in 8 directions: E, NE, N, NW, W, SW, S, and SE. These eight directions were further subdivided into two sub sections each, giving 16 subdivisions. Total 24 directions. After this, another circle marked with the 8 trigrams (Cantonese: Pa Gua) from the I Ching, which was some kind of Chinese divining almanac.

The primary use of this compass was to determine the best locations and times for burials, house moving, weddings, auspicious times, and locations for starting any enterprise; this practice was commonly known as the ancient art of feng shui; which had since evolved into a very popular decorating trend in Western architectural and interior design. This geomancy compass was used for a very long time before it was used for navigation purposes.

Before the invention of the navigational compass, travellers relied on landmarks, constellations, and other visual means to steer them in the right direction. This worked well until many found themselves totally and inconveniently lost on cloudy nights, or under cover of a dense fog.

For navigation purposes the Chinese scholars had, by the 7th - 8th centuries, determined direction with a device consisting of a wooden fish containing a magnetised needle placed in a bowl filled with water. The needle would return to the north-south orientation. This instrument was important in ancient China, especially for navigational orienteering, to the military when cavalry had to ride across the vast Gobi and Taklimakan deserts, to check on their most isolated northerly outpost towns.

By the year 1000 CE, many Chinese trading ships were able to sail as far as Saudi Arabia without getting lost using these basic navigational aids: refined needle compasses floated in water (wet compass); or refined magnetic needle placed on a dry board, or suspended from a silk thread (dry compass).

Both the fish-type and spoon-type of compasses were further refined into more compact designs resulting in the make-up of more precise maritime instruments that allowed explorers to accurately navigate the seas, effectively changing the course of history.

But this did not mean I was taken in by what the driver was telling me; that we Chinese had some kind of natural in-born sensor. Okay, I agree that most times I had a very good sense of direction. Did that come from being Chinese or what? I had my doubts but I couldn't help being quietly pleased there might be some truth to it.

  • Columbus set sail, supposedly in search of a westward route to China promising to bring back treasures for the Spanish queen, treasures and gold similar to the hoard brought back to Italy by Marco Polo. Instead, he landed on South American soil and assumed he had reached China when he met up with a tribe of native Indians.
  • Francis Xavier was supposed to sail for China when he set off eastward from Malacca; he landed in Japan instead.
  • China's famous seafarer, Admiral Zheng He, in contrast, sailed to the places as planned successfully a few times using his compass.
  • In fact, some historians of recent times, after much research, believe that Admiral Zheng He reached the Americas long before Columbus ever did. It is not hard to imagine this might be true.
  • Zheng He sailed the seas 50 years before Columbus did, with an armada many times the size of Columbus' fleet.
  • The Santa Maria of Columbus measured 85 ft long while Zheng He's Treasure Ship measured 400 ft long. With such a fleet, and possessing such experience, plus the aid of a proven navigation instrument, any such achievement is believable and possible.

A little over two-hours later I woke up and wondered aloud where we were.
"Not to worry Madam. We are making good time. We should be passing through Wuzhou very soon."

I thought, "Oh my God! Isn't Wuzhou the place crawling with snakes all over? Wuzhou's the place supplying snakes to Hong Kong restaurants for their yummy snake soup."

I couldn't see a thing, so how could he tell we were nearing Wuzhou. If being Chinese meant I too had an in-built compass or radar, it sure wasn't working for me. My mind suddenly felt cluttered with scary visions racing before my eyes.

I gave Q a nudge. That woke her. I whispered "Wuzhou" into her ear and then pointed stealthily to the window. Outside was pitch dark with no sign of life anywhere or any streetlights, if indeed we were travelling on a real road. We felt lost and afraid. What were we thinking of, involving Mr. H in this kind of dubious escapade? What if we were kidnapped, or robbed, then thrown off the car to be bitten by poisonous snakes? Or killed in a fatal car accident? Two of our friends had been killed the year before when the taxi they were travelling in collided with a container truck, also late at night.

We decided to keep quite still and quiet because:
1) We didn’t want to scare Mr H.
2) We didn't want to give the driver ideas in case he hadn't thought of them.
3) We began praying silently in earnest.
Then, I pretended to be interested in the surroundings, and asked the driver which direction we were travelling in. He told us we were going towards west, and in about 3 hours, we should be in Liuzhou.

"Chinese compass in your head still working good, eh?" I joked.
He laughed and sheepishly admitted his wife was the compass. "She is from Liuzhou, so I take her along so she can visit her mother."

"Is that so? I think you're taking your wife along so you can have free bed and breakfast from your mother-in-law. Take us along too. We'll pay you well for the food."

"No, no, the food at your hotel better. And talking of money, can you please pay me the fare in 2 bundles. Three-hundred in one; my wife is going to take that from me. The remaining four hundred please hand over to me secretly when I off-load your bags from the trunk."

"That's another in-built Chinese compass for money?" quipped Mr. H when we explained what the driver wanted. We were curious. He was spouting away merrily in Cantonese with nary a thought of fear that his wife would ask him about the extra money.

"No worry" he assured us. His wife was from the Zhuang minority group. They had been married only a year and his wife was still having difficulties understanding Cantonese. We became more relaxed when we realised Mrs. Driver knew the way. She was also familiar with the hotel we were booked in.

As the car drove up the long driveway to the hotel entrance, the driver quietly reminded us that the fare he quoted us was in FEC (even though we remembered nothing of that sort was mentioned). We let it go as we were happy to have arrived in Liuzhou all in one piece, and we were going to pay him more anyway since he got us here in time to make our meeting. More importantly, Mr. H was safe. You see, Mr. H trusted us implicitly, and had never once questioned our arrangements in all the years we were in China. He always went along with our recommendations.

The driver continued, "If you're paying in RMB, please add 200 yuan to the fare."

"Too bad Driver Si-fu. Our Swiss boss asked us to pay you 400 yuan extra, 200 for your wife and 200 for you. Since you claimed only 200 yuan, that's all you will get extra and you have to split that up with your wife.” When we handed over the money the driver didn't put up too much of an argument, or mind too much because he knew, and we knew, he was getting a pretty good deal.

Before they drove off, we handed the wife a gift of RMB 300 for her patience, her buns, and getting us safely to our hotel in Liuzhou; although it was already 5 am.

The Concierge and the Receptionist were surprised to see us, because we weren't expected. They knew last night's Guangzhou-Liuzhou flight was cancelled. "Were you expecting many guests from this flight and how did you know the flight was cancelled?"

"You were the only three booked into our hotel. Last night there was big wedding feast here in our hotel's banquet hall. We knew the flight would be cancelled because the pilot was here drinking and playing mah-jong since early afternoon. At the end of the feast he was so drunk he stayed the night here.”

"Good grief! You mean they already knew there would be no flight yesterday afternoon? Doesn't the Aviation Ministry have any rules or discipline about cancelled flights?"

"It happens every time he doesn't feel like flying, he simply submits a report stating that the navigation instruments were not working and the plane had gone in for check-up."

"You mean the compass on the plane?"

"Yes and No. Yes, he means the compass. No because he is having too much fun drinking or playing mah-jong."

We were also told that this was not an isolated case. This excuse of Flight Cancelled happened quite often with flights flying out of small airports. Most times the Party cadres were part of the carousal. And the domestic airports handling flight logistics were aware of such hanky-panky but closed a blind eye to these manoeuvrings. It was a matter of 'I scratch your back, you scratch mine.' (Translation: my people and best friends can travel any time on those flights without paying. Whether they are paying directly into my pockets, that's my business and not for you to question.)

Liuzhou Factory did not expect us too. Their directors had also been guests at the wedding celebration so they knew the plane was grounded at the airport. That morning when we showed up at their factory, they were so surprised and overcome with shame when they found out we had spent 10 hours waiting for the LZ plane, and another 6 hours in a taxi to get to Liuzhou in order to keep our appointment. They quickly rearranged their schedule (no doubt more carousing) to accommodate us. We had a very busy and fruitful afternoon in their factory. After all business discussions were concluded satisfactorily, and questions answered thoroughly, that night we celebrated with feasting and dancing. At dinner, we were introduced to some of the Party cadres from their party the night before. One look at their sheepish faces told us who the culprits were.

The only partner-in-crime missing from the line-up was the pilot. We were too polite to ask about him. We suspected he was most probably out somewhere flying, if he was still sober enough to fly a plane. I had mellowed down and had completely forgotten about the frightful Guangzhou-Liuzhou taxi ride, when the Factory Director took me aside and quietly promised to do his best to see that we were awarded the contract. Likewise, I promised that as soon as we received confirmation of the contract, I would arrange for him and his team to visit our factory in Switzerland. I would ensure the President of our company extended a special invitation to his wife, so husband and wife could enjoy the sights of Europe together. (Translation: again the 'you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours' mantra.)

We stayed over one more night, since Mr. H didn't want to fly to Guangzhou from Liuzhou, now that he was aware of the shenanigans going on behind the scene. We flew directly from Liuzhou back to Hong Kong. Before Mr. H returned to Switzerland, he reminded us that as far as he was concerned, no more domestic flights in China. Even if he had to fly into China a few times per regional visit, he would prefer in/out of China through Hong Kong unless we were using Beijing or Shanghai for a short domestic hop.

Of course, airlines in China are not operated in this manner any more, since the beginning of the 21st Century. There is no way any airline could survive, without tight control, with competition so keen. Better management, safety measures, and accountability were introduced, and updated frequently in order that the airlines can be run profitably and safely.

In recent years, the most modern airports have been constructed in major cities across China. Now, most people can afford to fly and anyone and everyone can enjoy flying!

Watch out for the next installment of 'Wonders': Express Delivery Service.
 

This work including text and associated photographs is Copyright of Cynthia Muak and Jonno Morris (Unless stated otherwise), and may be reproduced for personal and private use under Collective Commons 3 Licence. An email would be appreciated in such circumstances, as would a reference link back to this website.

You are not allowed to use this information to make money from this work - regardless of how fancy or well paid your lawyers may be.

Disclaimer:
The views and recollections expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of those of China Expats. Some artistic licence has been used arbitrarily in some of these Letters, and whilst most facts are in essence correct, some personal and literary interpretation may have been employed to greater or lesser degrees.

 
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